With a deadline to decide if schools will begin a hybrid education method looming early next month, the Bowling Green City Schools Board of Education held a special meeting Tuesday to gather current information on the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think we’re in this for the long haul still,” said Wood County Health Commissioner Ben Robison. “But the model you choose will lead to a variation of impact based on where you go.”
Bowling Green began its school year on Sept. 8, entirely online. The board made the decision to go all-virtual during a July special meeting. The school board had said it would decide by Oct. 9 if the district will start a partly online and partly in-person education plan on Oct. 20.
However, at the end of Tuesday’s meeting the board said it would meet Oct. 8, at 5:30 p.m. to make its decision, allowing school administration to disseminate that information the next day.
Robison told the board that, in total, there have been 1,958 cases in Wood County going back to March, with 177 active cases which are in their isolation period and considered contagious. About 75% of active Wood County cases come from Bowling Green zip codes. There have been 81 deaths to date and 159 hospitalizations.
“We are in a bit of a spike at the moment,” Robison said, adding that could be related to the Labor Day holiday weekend, but could also be from other factors. “We continue to monitor that closely in order to take steps to get ahead of this.”
Robison said that figures from Bowling Green State University indicate there have been about 120 cases total of the county’s 177 current cases, roughly 90% of which were seen in off-campus students.
Robison, who noted he’s been in his current position for about a month, said he’s been speaking with all the county school district leaders and they “are all making decisions based on the community factors that influence their decision-making.”
He cautioned against making a decision based on what has worked for another district, and emphasized that decisions should be made based on what will benefit the specific interests of Bowling Green families, faculty and staff. There are a number of different schooling models in use throughout the county, Robison said.
Board member Norm Geer asked Robison about what would happen to other students in a classroom if a child tests positive. Robison said they would have to investigate and go back to 48 hours before the symptoms began, when the student would have likely started being contagious. Those determined to have been in what is considered close contact with the student would have to be quarantined for 14 days.
Superintendent Francis Scruci said that one of the reasons that they are mandating seating charts in classrooms and on buses when the district goes to some form of in-person instruction is to help the health department in doing such contact tracing work.
“Schools are going to have cases when there are cases in the community,” Robison said, saying that’s reflective of the community itself, not of the school efforts. “There’s a lot of questions we don’t have answers to data-wise.”
Board President Ginny Stewart asked, given the current situation, if going to a four or five-day in-person school week would be “asking for trouble,” noting that if they did so, they wouldn’t be able to maintain the social distancing in classrooms or buses that they would with a hybrid model.
“At the moment that a case is in the classroom, how packed the classes are… will impact the number of contacts that are identified,” said Robison, as well as the number quarantined, and could affect additional case spread. “The reality is, is that when you move into this environment when you are taking on this risk, there is an inherent risk in bringing people back into a congregant setting.”
Stewart also said that, based on statistics for Wood County, people ages 20-49 have made up 49% of the cases, which she said is likely the age range of the majority of the district’s teaching staff.
Robison said that COVID-19 poses a risk to all age groups and said safety for all age groups is important.
“We have to consider the wide range of factors that are here,” he said.
Scruci asked about concerns regarding the coming flu season.
Robison noted that some tests are intended to run more than one respiratory illness at once, and the challenge is that testing positive for the flu does not mean testing negative for COVID-19.
This “sets up a frustrating scenario,” he said, adding that “flu season presents a real challenge because a lot of the flu symptoms look exactly like COVID symptoms, they’re interchangeable.”
Flu season, he said, extends from October to March, with a general peak in January.
Member Jill Carr asked Robison what he’s hearing from K-3 teachers in Wood County about efforts to keep their students in particular socially distanced and wearing masks. He said he’s heard about both successes and challenges.
Geer asked Robison if he had any projections for Wood County as cold weather arrives.
“I don’t think this is something we can predict with any certainty,” he said, saying they need to be prepared for things to become challenging.
Stewart noted that, in state rankings for COVID, Wood County has recently gone up significantly.
“The fact that we’re edging up is concerning,” Robison said, saying they’re actively working to address the issue. He said the county is at over 100 cases per 100,000 and they want to get “ourselves all the way below 50 and eventually eliminate this from our community.
“The fact that we’ve gone up is absolutely indicative of what we’re seeing,” he said. “Not very long ago we were at 75 cases per 100,000. … We’ve made our way up to the top in pretty quick fashion and we’re gong to have to turn that around.”
Brittany Howard, school nurse, also spoke, describing how she interacts with the health department when a case is identified in the district. She said they are currently searching for additional nursing staff – a new nurse was hired early in Tuesday’s meeting – and they hope to have five total, one for each building.
She said “there are a lot of moving targets” and the district is working closely with the health department to determine guidelines, how scenarios will look, and what the correct approaches would be.
“We are going to lay out plans, are going to have processes,” Howard said, but cautioned that they can change based on the district’s needs and how things proceed.
“We’re going to do the best we can to protect everyone and keep everyone safe,” she said, “but it’s not going to look exactly the same the whole way throughout.”
Scruci acknowledged there are families that are frustrated, and that he empathizes, but asked Robison if there are any repercussions or guidelines for when a parent knowingly allows a student who is showing symptoms to go to school or an extracurricular.
“That’s a really bad scenario you’re laying out,” Robison said. “If that were to happen, that would be contrary to what we would hope would happen,” and could have substantial impacts on quarantines and on the district overall.
He said currently they are getting good compliance county-wide, and that people want to do the right thing.
“I hope that is not happening often, I hope that’s not happening at all. But what that does is it exposes the community at large to disease … and it really puts at risk not only the educational community but also the broader community.”
The board further met in executive session to consider the appointment, employment, dismissal, discipline, promotion, demotion or compensation of a public employee. No action taken.
Tuesday’s meeting was held remotely and shown via YouTube. At its height, more than 220 viewers watched the meeting.